Saturday, April 19, 2008

Interview with Stephen Holness, Strategic Conservation Planner, South African National Parks

Stephen Holness is responsible for systematic conservation planning for the South African national park system. His time is split between spatial biodiversity planning to guide reserve expansion, internal land use planning for parks, and conservation planning for broader regions. His background is in physical geography concentrating on geomorphological processes, particularly in relation to biotic-abiotic interactions and climate change. After completing his Phd on landscape processes and climate change in the Subantarctic, Stephen tried lecturing Environmental Science for a few years until it became clear that this was not his calling. He looked for something a bit more applied after this, and was involved for a while in environmental consulting. Then he moved to South African National Parks, and developed the function of spatial biodiversity planning within the organization. This happened at a very exciting time in South African conservation planning, when South African National Parks was grappling with the application, and especially the implementation, of systematic conservation planning process. Currently, their key focus areas are planning for parks within an integrated bioregional context and climate change impacts and response.

Relevance of biogeography to your work

Antje Ahrends. Is climate change an important topic in South African National Parks Planning, and are adaptive strategies in development/have been developed?
Stephen Holness. We are extremely worried about climate change and its potential impact on the national park system and the region's biodiversity. In terms of park expansion programs we are explicitly building climate change into our park expansion planning, and then applying this to our currently very active land expansion program. Our biodiversity planning has taken on a far more outward looking approach that deals specifically with promoting landscape linkages and intact landscapes around parks. This is in response to the climate change issue in particular, as well as the other interlinked issues of rapid fragmentation of landscapes. One of the aspects of this is that we are now tending to plan for integrated bioregions rather than just for a national park. We are also developing collaborative projects with organizations such as the South African national Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) on the issue of climate change and protected areas. We are very keen to develop collaborative projects with local and international institutions and academics on the response to climate change.
AA. Is biogeography – “the study of the geography of life” – a relevant discipline to your work? Do you think it is relevant to practical conservation planning in general? If so, how?
SH. This question should be a bit of a no-brainer, as biogeography should be a fundamental underpinning science of conservation planning. However, the reality is that we have struggled to find any direct application of biogeography in the practicalities of conservation planning. It appears that the zoologists and botanists have been far quicker to provide useable insights into things like centres of endemism, movement of biota across landscapes over long and short term timespans, corridors etc. What has been useful, and is directly applied, are underlying fundamental principles of island biogeography which underpin our concepts of reserve design. However, it would be a pity if biogeography only contributed to underlying principles and didn’t contribute much to the ongoing planning process.
AA. Do you think that predictive species modelling can help to identify and fill monitoring and data gaps, or allow the prediction of areas that under future climate scenarios will become important refuges? In your view, are these models actually useful to practical conservation in South Africa, or are they only of mainly academic interest – given that it is still questionable to which degree these models are applicable at a local scale, and there are necessarily a lot of uncertainties associated with the predictions?
SH. We have had quite a lot of difficulty translating fairly broad scale predictions both of climate change scenarios and of the biotic response to these changes into local and regional scale action. Generally, in the end we have ended up applying fairly generic principles around creating linked landscapes, incorporating climatic and altitudinal gradients, incorporating as much micro-climatic and physical environment variability as possible, creating sufficiently large core protected areas, incorporating areas we feel may be refugia etc. We have not been particularly successful in incorporating specific outputs from processes such as predictive species modelling under different scenarios etc, as although these studies should be useful, they have so far tended to oversimplify or ignore the issues around probable movement of species across landscapes. Key issues such as potential movement rates for different taxa, natural barriers to movement such as unsuitable soil types for particular plant species, and the real potential of movement across heavily fragmented landscapes have tended to be ignored in studies. This makes it very difficult to apply current biogeographic studies to practical planning issues.
AA. If you think that these models are useful, what do you think is the best way to communicate this input? (e.g., consultants, courses, freeware, etc.)
SH. I believe that the issues are more around the nature of the studies themselves than the communication of the outputs! We have a reasonably good science-implementation linkages and are dealing with a small academic and planning community, so we don’t need to get to fancy about the communication process.
AA. Do you generally read biogeographic journals, or otherwise seek information on new findings in the field of biogeography?
SH. Generally, I end up in a biogeographic journal only when I have been following a reference thread from conservation planning journals, which I tend to follow more closely. Additionally, I tend to do most of my reading and reference finding electronically, so I often don’t pay to much attention to which journal the article is in. The key is actually whether the journal is reasonably accessible and open electronically via our library services.

The general practicality of incorporating new biogeographic findings in conservation work

AA. The nature of scientific research is to continuously challenge existing paradigms. Does this make it difficult to accommodate new findings in conservation planning, which needs long term strategies?
SH. We are reasonably adaptive in our approach to conservation planning, so we are quite comfortable with adapting our planning to either better data or different concepts. Perhaps more of an issue, is that the scientific debate (especially around paradigms) tends to get caught up in the academic stratosphere, and very seldom asks the question: What, if anything, does this mean practically? This certainly delays the accommodation of new findings into practical conservation planning. It would be really useful if authors could give this a bit more thought when they publish.
AA. Existing prioritisation schemes such biodiversity hotspots, Global 200, or Endemic and Important Bird Areas necessarily suffer from data inadequacies, and also reflect the interests and values of the NGOs that generated them. Is there a need for objective reviews of the merits of these schemes, and alternative scenarios? Or do potentially conflicting messages jeopardise the implementation of conservation strategies, confuse decision makers and compromise public support?
SH. I have no problem with hotspots and similar approaches as a method for drumming up public support for an issue, however, from a planning point of view they are severely flawed. There are strong misgivings from the systemic conservation planning community about the vigour of some of these approaches. I would certainly tend towards a far more target and data driven systemic approach to conservation planning, even at an international scale.
AA. Much biogeographic research is concerned with uncertainties of predictions and limitations of techniques, e.g. predictive species modelling. Is it possible to accommodate and communicate uncertainty in conservation planning?
SH. We can certainly accommodate uncertainty into the inputs into a plan, and much of our work deals with accommodating the limitations of available datasets (including modelled data). However, we get in deep trouble when we are not specific on the outputs. For instance, we need to identify particular spatially explicit corridors for incorporation into land use plans, or specific properties for incorporation into a park. We can’t say maybe here or maybe there. Rather, we say within our current knowledge this is our best possible assessment, with the explicit statement that as our data improves we will adapt and improve our planning. It is absolutely critical that the planning process allows for this continual improvement, update and learning. Having said this, we do strive for reasonable stability in our planning outputs, and it is critical that there is only one officially recognized conservation plan for an area at a time.

Communication between biogeographers and conservation practitioners

AA. Do you think that biogeographers communicate adequately the applicability of their research findings to conservation planning? And vice versa, do conservation practitioners adequately communicate their information needs to biogeographers?
SH. There is certainly room for improvement from both groups.
AA. Is an intensified exchange between conservation practitioners and biogeographers necessary?
SH. Yes
AA. Where do you see potential platforms for this?
SH. I would like to see stronger biogeography presence at the SCB conference for a start.
AA. Are there any further thoughts you would like to share:
SH. As conservation planners, we are desperately keen to make sure that the best possible science underpins our planning. There opportunity is there to get both the science principles and its outputs implemented. I order for this to happen, I think that we need to have far better interactions between conservation planners and biogeographers at the beginning of projects. Unless the research projects are more closely tailored to real world implementation issues, and start giving better answers to practical questions such as actual rate of movement of species and communities to changing climate, more specific identification of refugia for a range of taxa etc, we will be stuck in the situation where biogeography’s broadest original underlying concepts are used in conservation planning, but not much else.
We are keen to develop mutually beneficial research programmes, especially around issues such as climate change response and protected areas. Please feel free to contact me at sholness(at)

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